Volunteers step up to repair babies’ headstones at Willesden Jewish Cemetery

The gravestones are over 100 years old


In what must be one of the most profound acts of selflessness, a group of volunteers has begun repairing the headstones of around 200 babies and small children at a north-west London Jewish cemetery.

The majority of these weather-worn gravestones found at Willesden Jewish Cemetery are the final resting place of young victims of the First World War or the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 to 1920.

During the first of several day-long workshops, 11 volunteers worked alongside a team of staff to re-erect and secure loose headstones, clean the memorials and tidy up the surrounding gardens.

Volunteer Colin Frey, 63, told the JC that the project had “particularly resonated” with him. “I had a brother who died at 10 months, and it is something that isn’t talked about.”

“These graves are over 100 years old, but it is still important that they are marked, cleaned up and can look as good as they can.”

Describing the work as “very physical”, Colin, who lives in Barnet, said: “I have cleaned family gravestones, but with this project, I was straightening them up, working with a hammer and chisel. It was very different to just scrubbing a headstone. The work was very impactful and has already made a big difference to the area.”

Part of the work involved placing plaques next to previously unmarked graves or where the wording on a gravestone had eroded. “The plaque next to the headstone I was working on shared my birthdate. It was quite emotional.”

Colin suggested that repairing headstones could be “another way of getting more people involved in cemeteries and talking about the subject of death”, adding: “I plan to go back in August, and I know that quite a few of the others also want to.”

Another volunteer, Susan Ross, 66, said that it was “a great privilege” to repair the babies’ headstones.

She told the JC: “My mother and her sisters were born around the same time as these children, but they went on to have lives. Who knows what lives these children would have had?”

Describing the graves with no headstones as “heartbreaking”, Susan said that it was even more upsetting to read the ones with inscriptions. “The words were beautiful. We are now doing what the parents of these children would have done [to the headstones], so these children will no longer be forgotten.”

Willesden Jewish Cemetery opened in 1873 and is known for being the burial place of prominent figures, including the chemist Rosalind Franklin and Nathan Marcus Adler, the first Chief Rabbi of what was then the British Empire.

Susan said: “I know people often visit Willesden Cemetery to see the gravestones of the great and the good, but I hope that people will now stop and look at the graves of the babies and children too.”

She said that she became interested in volunteering at the cemetery when she did some research during lockdown and “discovered that I have a lot of ancestors buried at Willesden. I went along and was shown around and thought that I would love to volunteer there one day. When I heard about this project, it sounded like something really worthwhile to get involved in.”

A keen gardener, Susan, from Borehamwood, worked on cutting back the overgrown foliage surrounding the plots.

She said: “It felt really special to turn the area back into a tranquil place. The volunteers were fabulous. It was a great group of all ages and the work felt really uplifting. ”

Miriam Marson, head of heritage at United Synagogue, said the project was “a deeply personal mission” for everyone involved…This particular section of the cemetery, perhaps the saddest of all, is a reminder of a lost generation.

“As a team – of both staff and volunteers – we felt a collective desire to pay our respects to this lost generation. By restoring these memorials, we are not only cleaning and preserving physical monuments, but also bringing back the memories of those they represent.”

The next date for repairing the headstones of babies and young children at Willesden Jewish Cemetery is August 18.

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